The Debate over Adopt-a-Programs

Dawn Davenport


At least once a year on any internet adoption forum, a thread will erupt about the ubiquitous adopt-a-______ (highway, zoo animal, planter, needy family, or whatever) programs and what adoptive parents can and should do to stop them. The debate of Adopt-a-Programs is heated indeed, but I have to wonder if they are really so bad.

adopt a programs- are they bad for adopted children

Many folks, including most adoption professionals, feel very strongly that these programs insult adopted children and their families. Form letters are readily available for parents to mail to the offending organizations explaining how the use of the word “adoption” in this way is demeaning and harmful to our children. Less often, but still common, are internet threads and discussions condemning the use of the word “adoption” to refer to acquiring a family pet.

The experts seem to be unanimous against using “adoption” in any way other than to build a family, so who am I to disagree. And yet, these discussions always leave me feeling vaguely uneasy. Chicken that I am, I’ve been quite content to hold my tongue and keyboard and sit these discussions out.

Recently, I received a question about a second-grade class raising money to “adopt” a zoo animal. The questioner wondered if she should ask the teacher to change the name of the program because she was concerned that her adopted daughter would be confused or feel diminished by this language. I spent the week mulling over whether I should respond, and if so, how.

A Conversation with My Daughter

As luck would have it, fate intervened in my pondering and procrastination. While driving one of my daughters (then age 13) to piano lessons we passed an adopt-a-highway sign by our local high school.

Daughter: What’s up with these adopt-a-highway signs? What exactly do they mean?

Me: [Surprised by serendipity and not one to miss an opportunity especially when it drops in my lap, I jumped right in.] Funny that you should ask since I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. How do you feel about them? Do you think they should use that word? How does that make you feel?

Daughter: [Painfully long pause while she looks at me with an expression that could politely be called quizzical, but more likely could be interpreted as “What planet did you come from?”] Huh???

At this point, I feel a bit like the parent in the old sex ed joke. The kid asks where did I come from, and the parent launches into a complete discussion of the mechanics of sex. The kid responds, “I mean was I born in Minneapolis or St. Paul?

Me: Um, what was your question again?

Daughter: Why is that girl’s name on the adopt-a-highway sign? I thought it had to be a business. [A high school student had adopted the section of the highway running by the school, and her name was on the sign.] And what were you talking about?

Me: [After briefly explaining how adopt-a-highway worked, I explained myself.] Some people think that the word “adopt” shouldn’t be used casually like for cleaning up a highway or giving money to a zoo for sponsoring an animal. They think it is offensive to people who are adopted. What do you think?

Daughter: [Clearly intrigued by the question, she pauses to think it through.] Well, until you just mentioned it, I’ve never thought about it. I hear that word all the time, and it doesn’t bother me at all. It just means to take care of the highway, and that doesn’t have anything to do with me. It’s like with our pets. We adopted them, and they are a part of our family.

Me: But I think adopting a pet is different from adopting a child. My commitment to you guys is totally different and much deeper than my commitment to our pets.

Her: Yea, but you love us both. You can love things differently. Like, you love Thai food, but you wouldn’t want to marry it. You can adopt things differently too.

Me: English is a funny language that way. Words can mean so many different things, but I do think we have to be careful with what words we use.

Her: Maybe, but this just seems silly.

After piano, we went to pick up her friend Katie for a sleep-over. Katie, also 13 at the time, was adopted from China. My daughter suggested that I ask Katie what she thought.

Me: Do you think it is offensive when people talk about adopting a highway or adopting an animal from a zoo?

Katie: [Looking at me wearily like this was a trick question.] What do you mean by offensive?

Me: Hurting your feelings.

Katie [Looking perplexed.]: Why would it hurt my feelings?

Me: Well, I don’t necessarily mean your feelings, but it might hurt another adopted person’s feelings because they could think that using the word “adopt” in that way would make adoption seem less permanent or important.

Katie [Who, by the way, is a very concrete thinker.]: Well, of course, adopting a highway isn’t that important. I guess that could hurt the highway’s feelings, but not mine. What else would they call it?

Me: They could call it sponsoring the highway.

Katie: That’s true but it doesn’t sound as good as Adopt-a-Highway and would take up more room on the sign.

Daughter: Face it, mom, it’s kind of weird to be hurt by using the word adopt like that. It’s just a different way to use the word.

Katie [Who is more diplomatic than my daughter.]: Some people are really sensitive and maybe a little insecure, and that’s probably why they care.

Words both reflect and influence attitudes, and attitudes matter.

Words both reflect and influence attitudes, and attitudes matter.

Words Matter

Unlike my daughter and Katie, I don’t underestimate the power of words. Words both reflect and influence attitudes, and attitudes matter. The argument in the adoption community against the use of the word “adoption” for highways, rubber ducks, or even pets, is that it lessens the meaning of the word. To adopt a child means forming a lifelong commitment to love, raise, and cherish this child, the same as giving birth to a child. When you adopt a highway or flower bed, there is no lifelong commitment or even caring, it’s all about money.

With the family pet, it’s a bit trickier, but even the most ardent animal lover, like me, feels a different commitment to pets than to children. If one of my children developed an allergy to one of our cats, or if one of our dogs started to bite unprovoked, I would find another home for the pet. My child’s comfort and safety would come first. But when my kids become obnoxious, I consider many options but never finding them another home. Although adoption disruptions are real, they are not common and are considered a tragedy by all concerned.

Are Our Kids Really That Fragile?

That’s the party line, and it’s true, but there is something about all this that leaves me unsettled. It’s as if our adopted children and the very institution of adoption are so fragile that using the wrong word can cause major confusion or fundamentally undermine self-esteem. This simply doesn’t reflect the reality that I see. I asked this question to two adult friends who were adopted, and it isn’t their reality either.

The English language doesn’t lend itself to such exactness. Lots of words have different meanings. As my daughter pointed out, love can be used to refer to the deepest, most profound feeling known to humans, but it can also be used casually to mean strongly prefer or like. Even the phrase “give birth” can mean bringing forth a child, but can also mean coming up with an idea or plan. It would seem ludicrous for a child by birth to feel less important because of this other meaning. Years ago when writing my book (The Complete Book of International Adoption), I referred to it, not always lovingly, as our fifth child. I don’t think my children were confused by this.

It’s as if our adopted children and the very institution of adoption are so fragile that using the wrong word can cause major confusion or fundamentally undermine self-esteem. This simply doesn’t reflect the reality that I see.

It’s as if our adopted children and the very institution of adoption are so fragile that using the wrong word can cause major confusion or fundamentally undermine self-esteem. This simply doesn’t reflect the reality that I see.

Who is Really Hurt?

I dislike and mistrust any hyper-focus on word choice because it often backfires on the ones it is supposed to help. One time at a playgroup, one mother asked another mom very politely about her son’s condition and referred to the child as a midget. The child’s mother responded curtly that midget was a derogatory word and that her child should be referred to as “a person of short stature”. As you would imagine, her response was a conversation killer. I later found out that the questioner’s cousin had recently given birth to a child with dwarfism, and she was trying to learn more.

So, who benefited by this focus on word correctness? The only thing the embarrassed questioner learned was that word choice was very important, and since she wasn’t certain of the preferred words, she shouldn’t talk about it at all. Ultimately the real loser was the boy. The best thing for this child would be for the world to know more, not less, about his condition. The mother missed the opportunity to educate five interested and sympathetic listeners, who would have gone forth and educated more people, and in the process create a better environment for her child to live.

It’s hard to keep up with the politically correct words: dwarf or midget or person of short stature; blind or visually impaired; real parent or birth parent; birth parent or first parent; natural child or child by birth; adopt or sponsor. I will continue to do what I have always done. I try to not use the word “adopt” to refer to inanimate objects. Truthfully, I don’t do this to protect my child, but to avoid offending others in the adoption community, mostly adoptive parents. I try to avoid referring to adding an animal to a family as “adoption”, but this usually seems artificially forced, so most of the time I don’t worry about it. I don’t ask for a change of names when our schools adopt zoo animals, needy families, or even garbage cans. Nor do I ask that they change the name of the history unit titled “Birth of a Nation.”

What we all need is more light and openness on supposedly taboo topics, such as adoption. I pray that our children are not hothouse flowers that will wilt in this light. My goal is to grow a child that is more like a black-eyed Susan or hardy aster that can thrive anywhere and understands that the nuances of language are just that.


First Published in 2008; Updated in 2018
Image credit: Helen OrozcoA.J. Thursby

29/10/2018 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 34 Comments

34 Responses to The Debate over Adopt-a-Programs

  1. Avatar Jennifer says:

    I don’t really know how I feel about it. I think in the use of the word “adopt” this is low on my radar of issues.

    I did recently see a company post that they have job openings…only they listed it as “we’re adopting!”. That really rubbed me the wrong way.

    • Dawn Davenport Dawn Davenport says:

      I see that they removed that particular phrasing. I’m guessing it was because of some customer backlash, but I have no idea.

  2. Avatar Random person says:


  3. Avatar Pat Johnston says:

    Since I was more or less the originator of the campaigns against adopt-a marketing back in the late ’80s, I’ll chime in to say just this: Asking 13-year-olds what they think doesn’t in any way exemplify how much younger kids thing. Please re-read my old article, which has some very real examples of how young children have actually reacted.

  4. Avatar Rosie says:

    Your whole article hadn’t loaded and i didn’t know that so sorry to repeat some of your ideas, Dawn!

  5. Avatar Rosie says:

    Oh yes and I think in terms of etymology “adopt” did NOT start out referring to parent-child…
    Does anyone know this? I assume it comes from “adoptare” in Latin which means “select” or “choose”. Maybe the word “adopt” just doesn’t do justice to our experience. Like “love.” Loving tatertots and loving our children is not the same thing, as Katie would agree. Didn’t Woody Allen’s character once say he “luuuurved” his girlfriend for that reason?
    But, Pat, I totally understand your essay, too. My inclination is also to make the word sacred so the children could avoid any confusion or suffering. But that never seems to actually stick since socio-linguistics show that words, like our children, for better or for worse, eventually have lives of their own. Again – I vote for a new word for adoption. A brilliant and amazing word. That just feels like what it is.

  6. Avatar Rosie says:

    And then also consider, what about “give birth to,” say “an idea”…
    Or “the basic idea of participatory democracy gave birth to a new nation”
    (got that one off the free dictionary)
    Or “technology gives birth to laziness” (sometimes we use “birth” in an overtly negative way…)

    And regarding adoption Notice how many definitions there are (even on this free online dictionary. Forget about Websters):

    As poetic minded person, as word lover, i understand the yearning for an exclusive word that refers to the kind of adoption that occurs between parent and child. The answer is, perhaps, not to condemn multiple meanings of the word “adopt” but to make like a Shakespeare and coin a whole new word! 🙂

  7. Avatar Marci says:

    I just asked my manny (male nanny) who is a teen who was adopted how he felt and he also gave me, “Have you spouted two heads?” look and said he’s never thought it that way. And he went on to say that at the orphanage, as much as they thought about being adopted, they never thought they’d be given back. The adopt anything language doesn’t bother him. He never really associated it with his position.

  8. Avatar Ray says:

    I am teaching my children (one biological, one adopted from China) that the only person that can give words the power to hurt is yourself.

    It’s a concept that took me until my 20’s to grasp but my parents never stopped trying to teach me it. Every time I came home upset that people were calling me names they tried diferent approaches to the concept. But in a nutshell, the reason I was upset was because I let the words upset me. I think the same thing holds true with the Adopt-a- program, the term “Gotcha day” and many other things out there even true examples of hate speech.

    Who cares how malicious a person is being, you are the person who lets the words have an impact. I think it’s more important that we teach our kids, biological or not, that important concept and then we don’t need to care about what people call things

  9. Avatar Nancy says:

    My sister and I were both adopted as infants. I have to say—I am not phased or bothered by “adopt-a-highway” or “adopt a whatever ” I really dont care. My parents love me. They were devoted. we were a regular family just like families formed by birth.
    the same word has different meaning—-if you call some one “cool” you could mean “hip” or “cold”….you can tell what way it is intended.
    same w/ “adopt -a-whatever” we know what it means….it doesnt diminish adoptive families in my opinion. Not everyone would agree. I am not “touchy” or ‘sensitive’ about adoption though in general.

  10. Avatar Sandy says:

    I think it has a lot to do with what came first, the chicken or the egg… Was the word ‘adopt’ created from the action of taking a child in as your own or did the word already exist and was used to describe that action? As I started learning different languages I developed a habit of finding out their origin and various uses, and ‘adopt’ or ‘adoption’ is used in many languages in exactly the same way… and in all the languages I speak, it means to accept something created by another or foreign to one’s nature (Merriam-Webster) as your own. Basically, you’re are taking something that wasn’t your own and make it your own. Having children means you will love and care for the child immensely; by adopting a child, you’re making a child that wasn’t yours before and making him yours now, therefore loving and caring for them immensely because that’s what you for your children. The word ‘adoption’ means just that, treat and behave towards something or someone that wasn’t yours at first as if it was or to make it your own. You adopt laws when you accept them and follow them, you adopt positions physically and abstractly by changing your posture or opinions respectively, etc. I think that knowing and understanding the true meaning of the word adopt can help people deal with the Adopt-A-____ ‘issue’. If you adopt a street, you treat it and care for it as you would your own street; you adopt a pet, you treat it and care for it like you would treat your own pet; needless to say, nothing in those sentences asks you to treat it like a human child. When you adopt a child, the importance should be on ‘child’ and not ‘adopt’.

  11. Avatar Ava says:

    I hear you, but I still disagree. I think it is demeaning and potentially damaging for a child to think of themselves as the equivalent in importance to a highway or animal or trash can. It may not show up now, but it could affect them later. Why take the risk.

  12. Avatar jenny Peterson says:

    I also don’t see adotped kids as fragile or the institution of adoption. I don’t think my kids care if we adopt a pet or a highway and I don’t think they will suffer psychological damage if we do. This is just adopted parents needing to worry about something.

  13. Avatar Bethany says:

    My child is young so I have not had to deal with this issue. I had felt sure that it was offensive to have these type of programs or at least to call the Adopt-a- Whatever. Now, I’m not so sure. I think you have a point about resiliency, but I also don’t want my child to suffer if it can be avoided.

  14. Avatar Gina L. says:

    I agree with the previous poster. Dawn, as much as I like your approach to most issues, I can’t agree with you on this one.

  15. Avatar Joe's mom says:

    Well, I’m not sure I agree. I believe that using the word adopt in a program that refers to anything but children demeans the child and demeans the institution of adoption. I did however enjoy reading a very different perspective.

  16. Avatar wendy sue Patterson says:

    Very Funny! It is good to laugh at myself and to realize that maybe we all take ourselves too seriously. Mine are younger, but I was already gearing up to fight the next adopt a whatever program.

  17. Avatar Glenda says:

    I LOVED this. I have always thought it was not such a big deal but thought it was way to inappropriate to say so. I guess I’m too easily cowed. Thank you for all your blogs. This is the only blog I RSS.

  18. Avatar Laura says:

    This is priceless, funny and probably wise. Thanks.

  19. Avatar Berry says:

    I loved the humor. Sometimes the whole adoption communtiy, of which I’m certainly a part, takes themselves so darn seriously. Let’s lighten up some. Thanks for a good start.

  20. Avatar Lydia says:

    I know you’re trying to lighten the mood, but I still think we should not use the word “adopt” lightly. It may not matter now to your daughter, but how do you know that it isn’t slowly eating away at her self concept and why would you want to risk that.

  21. Avatar Boots says:

    OK, this has got to be the funniest thing ever written about this topic. I’ve read your book and every page of your website and what I love the most is that you can be both serious and funny. Even though we are talking about a serious subject, not everything has to be so deadly dull. Thanks.

  22. Avatar Kasey says:

    I read you blog every week through the RSS feed, but I must disagree with the basic concept of this one. I think it does hurt kids and adoptive families when people use the word “adoption” carelessly. In my opinion, adopting a highway or garbage can cheapens the word “adoption” and I don’t want any part of it. I will continue to ask schools, zoos, and other organizations to find more appropriate words to express their programs, and strongly encourage others to do the same. Other than that, I usually love your blog. 🙂

  23. Avatar Kate says:

    I’m an adoption professional, and I too have thought that the whole avoid the word adoption business was making a mountain out of a mole hill, but never had the guts to say anything. I’m not sure whether I’ll have the guts but I may recommend others to read your blog as a way to open a dialog.

  24. Avatar Dawn says:

    Sara, I see your point about parents being more sensitive both because they are the ones adopting and also becasue they are old enough to understand the full implication of word choice, but most adult adoptees that I have spoken with also don’t take offense. Granted, I haven’t spoken to huge numbers, and I’m sure that there are some who would object, but for the most part, that’s not what I hear. I agree with Dallas, that common sense and common curtesy is the best approach. Thanks for your comment.

  25. Avatar Sara says:

    In some ways it makes sense that parents would be more sensitive to this than kids. The parents are the ones doing the adopting, and I can see where they wouldn’t want that to be compared to picking up trash a few times a year.

  26. Avatar dallas says:

    Thank you for responding to this topic! I find so many situations where political correctness has gone too far. Indeed, how fragile is our adoption if we must walk on eggshells in discussing even the very word adoption? Tact and politeness are certainly important. Often, blatant, too blunt, comments in the name of “honesty” are thrown around on all topics, which swings the pendulum too far the other direction. I feel this falls under the category of general common sense. Most often, the best stance is not to one full extreme or the other: thought for others without going WAY overboard.

  27. Avatar texas says:

    I was glad to see this topic raised. I too have wondered whether I should object to Adopt-A programs. It seems like the “responsible Adoptive Parent” thing to do, but it fundamentally felt like an overreaction. Glad to know I’m not alone.

  28. Avatar Dawn says:

    Well, that’s certainly the arguement for objecting to the Adopt-A ____ programs, but I simply don’t believe that it does undermine their fundamental belief in the permanence and importance of adoption as a method of family building. I would certainly be more careful if my child seemed particularly fragile, but I think I might approach it by trying to work on the underlying problem that was causing my child to be so vulnerable.

  29. Avatar randi says:

    Yes, but doesn’t it screw up kids to think that you can give an adopted animal away or fail to clean up an adopted highway. Doesn’t that lead them to believe that they too can be given away or failed to be looked after?

  30. Avatar Dawn says:

    Yeah, Katie is a hoot. She always makes me laugh with the frank way she views the world. Thanks for your comment.

  31. Avatar Joanna says:

    “Katie: That’s true but it doesn’t sound as good as Adopt-a-Highway and would take up more room on the sign.”
    I literally laughed out loud at this!

    Again Dawn, I always appreciate your perspective. I agree that we need to be aware of these issues, but hyper-sensitivity can be paralyzing instead of helpful. I’m still a PAP and I have to admit some of the adoption sensitivity conversations make me nervous. But you always have such a real, matter-of-fact, easy approach on how to deal with LIFE.

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